Keeping the Art of Urdu Calligraphy Alive in Hyderabad

Abdul Ghaffar inspects the Urdu line I wrote then bursts out laughing. “For me, people like you who can read and write Urdu in normal script are padhe shade (letter). Not padhe likhe (educated),” says the calligraphy teacher at Idaara-e-Adabiyaat-e-Urdu in Hyderabad. “It would take about a year to teach you the Nastaliq script used in Urdu calligraphy. The first few months would be spent correcting your hand movements and unattractive handwriting,” he says, still guffawing.

Ghaffar is among the few surviving calligraphers in Hyderabad, doing his best to combat the rapid digitization of fonts and keep this ornate lettering style alive. He taught khatatior Urdu calligraphy, at the institute since the mid-1990s, describing what he does as a teacher both fan (art) and movie (awareness). Each year it has 25 students – those interested should have a basic knowledge of written and spoken Urdu; the minimum qualification is Class IX.

One of his former students is Ghouse Pasha, from a long line of railway employees who settled in Secunderabad. Pasha, who took the course over four years instead of the usual two since working alongside him, demonstrates the very first thing Ghaffar taught him – how to make a nuqta, or period. The point should be equal to the length, width and height of the top half of the qalam or reed pen nib. Art and geometry come together beautifully as Ghouse draws three identical dots aligned vertically.

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A beginner uses them as a reference to draw the letter Alif properly. Learning this specific alignment and length helps a novice grasp the length or width of each letter’s shape. It’s called paimaaishor measure.

This is the very first lesson, before progressing towards mastering the khat-e-naskhmost ornate khat-e-nastaliq and the elaborate khat-e-sulus (a style of Islamic calligraphy that uses curved, oblique lines instead of angles in letters).

Muqeemuddin writes invitations, posters, charity receipts and “madrasa” certificates.

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Need help from the state

Pasha and her former classmate, Safoora Raheen, hold classes at their home, teaching these techniques to children (Pasha teaches no more than six to seven children at a time, while Raheen takes groups of up to 25). Raheen says it’s important to keep kids interested in keeping the art alive. They also send invitation letters and certificates for a fee.

For calligraphy to survive and thrive, however, state support is needed, believes Ghaffar, who tried to follow up on a 1990 government (formerly Andhra Pradesh) order requiring every Urdu language school to appoint two ustads of calligraphy. The state formation of Telangana in 2014 saw the inclusion of Urdu and calligraphy in school curricula, but only those who teach regular script – not calligraphers – were appointed to schools, he said. If schools open their doors, adds Ghaffar, those who learn this art will be able to better use their talent to teach others.

Despite the challenges, calligraphy survives in Hyderabad. City historian Sajjad Shahid says, “In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Urdu began to lose its status as a government language in the north. It rose to prominence in Hyderabad when North Indian poets like Daagh Dehlvi and Ameer Minai came to the Deccan. Calligraphers were also part of this flight of talent to the south.

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The request of families

A few years ago, Mohammed Amer moved from Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh to Hyderabad to learn calligraphy and teach. He now teaches in two madrasas. He credits his talent to the late Nayeem Saberi, a calligrapher from the Jamal Market of Chatta Bazar in old Hyderabad; he not only took lessons from him, but also followed him around his store. “It would not have been possible to learn this art in my home town. The people of Hyderabad always appreciate the calligraphic text,” he says.

Most Muslim families in the city still distribute invitations for any function in Urdu and English, even if they cannot read Urdu. “While standards and patronage have diminished from pre-1948 days, mosques, cemeteries and some other establishments here still have signs in normal and calligraphic script,” Shahid explains. Even more encouraging, it’s not just Muslim families who are interested in calligraphy.

The affair of the invitations

However, there is still a long way to go. Chatta Bazaar still has a long alley of shops creating and selling invitation cards. But after Urdu fonts were computerized and digital printing took over in the 1990s, his calligraphers, whose deft strokes could turn plain black ink into exquisite text, had to find other jobs. Today, only one resident calligrapher, Muqeemuddin, 43, plies his trade here. He sends not only invitation letters, but also posters, charity receipts and madrasa certificates.

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Sitting cross-legged on a bench at SR Cards in Chatta Bazaar, Muqeemuddin says he started learning calligraphy when he was 15 from his paternal uncle. “I took on many apprentices, but no one continued beyond a month,” he says, looking up from a certificate he’s writing. Most simply lack the patience and discipline to perfect such calligraphy, he laments.

“Urdu is kept alive by newspapers and published literature, but these are printed in the usual way,” he says. “It is calligraphy that keeps Urdu alive in its most traditional form, and the demand for invitations keeps khatati alive.”

Daneesh Majid is a Hyderabad-based writer on South Asian culture and security.

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